The first four games from TableStar are unique in the fact that they all have the same basic "HeroCard" engine - a card dueling game that becomes the backbone for four very different board games. This is an intriguing idea, and I was very pleased to see the good quality of components from this new company - especially the themes of each game. I've played three of the games: Champion of New Olympia (superheroes), Galaxy (space), and HeroCard: Rise of the Shogun (TableStar Games, 2006 - Alexei Orthenin Girard). All three of them are fun, and I especially think the dueling mechanic is rather well done, but Rise of the Shogun is the best of the lot.
Rise of the Shogun takes the nifty dueling mechanic and combines it with a clever area control situation, as players attempt to spread across the land, scoring points in different ways. The theme is enjoyable, the mechanics are sound, and the decks included are varied yet balanced. The game comes with two decks: Samurai and Ninja, but one can purchase the Miko and Prince expansion decks, allowing more variety in games or increasing the game to three or four players. I actually think the game might be best with only two, but it is still fun with three and four and is rather fast and furious - something that goes well with the game system.
Before I talk about the game, let me explain the HeroCard engine. Each player takes a deck of cards to represent their hero. Interestingly, players can use decks from the other games (i.e. I can use a Space Race deck in the Rise of Shogun game); and other than some theme clashing, they work fairly well. Three Attribute cards are included with each deck to represent the player's Body, Mind, and Attribute "X". These cards have a number on them that ranges from "4" to "8", showing the character's strength in those skills. The rest of the cards in a deck are "Action" cards and are associated with one of the three types of skills. Cards are Fast (play whenever you want); Restricted (play on your own turn); and Exclusive (play on your turn - limit of one.) Players arrange their attribute cards
In a duel, a player has four phases. They first discard as many cards as they want to from their hand, then draw up to three more - not exceeding seven. After this, players "clear" up to three cards that they've played on the table, placing them in their discard pile. At this point, the player takes their one exclusive action and as many restricted actions as they can.
Most exclusive actions are attacks. The player must play one "Base" attack card and as many attack modifiers as they wish. However, each card played has a cost in one of the three attribute types. As a player plays a card, they place it on the table, where it stays until cleared. The total cost of all cards on the table cannot exceed the number of the attribute. Therefore, players who play many cards have fewer options available to them on turns. The player being attacked then may play one "Base" block and as many Block modifiers as they have room for, still making sure they stay within their attribute limits. Both players may continue to add modifiers until they have no more or decide to play no more. If the attacker's total is higher, then they "hit" the opponent; otherwise, play passes to the next player.
Now, to combine this with the main game: A board is placed on the table, showing a map of Japan divided up into regions. One of these regions, Heian, is marked with a castle, and there is a dotted line surrounding all regions two spaces or less away from it. Players each take one Character deck, one Hero Pawn, and fifteen Peasant pawns of their color. A deck of treasure cards and another of mission cards are shuffled and placed near the board. A number of castles (six to eight, determined by players) are placed around the board by the players but cannot be placed inside the dotted line or within three spaces of another castle. Four shrines are placed after this, which must be two spaces away from any other castle or shrine. Each player claims a "starting" castle, placing a peasant on the castle to claim it as their own, and placing their hero in an adjacent space. Players shuffle their decks and continue the game.
On a player's turn, they first discard, draw, and clear cards in the same manner as a duel. They then may move their hero pawn up to three spaces, entering the Hero Phase. In this phase, a player may take one "exclusive" action and as many restricted actions as they wish. The Exclusive actions are:
- Claim a Mission: The player may pick an unclaimed castle that is adjacent to their hero, placing one of their peasant markers in the courtyard. They then draw the top mission card, the terms of which must be completed to claim the castle.
- Search a Shrine: A player may do this when moving their hero into a space with a shrine. The shrine token is removed from the board and legally placed by the player to their right. The player who searches the shrine draws the top two treasure cards and keeps one, placing the other at the bottom of the deck. Treasure cards may be monsters that can be used to attack other players, victory points, or items that can be used to take special actions.
- Attack: A player can attack another hero, a peasant, or a Castle courted by the opponent. To do so, a player plays through a duel as described above. If defeating a peasant, the player removes it from the board and takes it as a prisoner. If defeating a hero, the player may take one random treasure card from that player and move the defeated hero to an adjacent space of one of their castles. If defeating a courted castle, the player replaces the peasant with one of their own and takes the mission card from their opponent.
- Summon a Monster: A player can use one of their treasure monster cards to attack another player or peasant.
Players can also take restricted actions such as using an item, exchanging prisoners with their opponent, and quitting a mission.
Players then take a "Court" Phase, which allows them to take one of the following three actions:
- Recruit Peasants - Players may add two peasants to the board in spaces adjacent to peasants or castles that they control. Peasants who get cut off from the others due to attacks and such like are removed from the board.
- Move their Hero three more spaces. In this move, as in the normal move, a hero can move through spaces that contain their own peasants for free.
- Convert Peasants or Castles - A peasant may attempt to convert an adjacent peasant or castle by making an attack with the cards. If they do so, they replace the attacked peasant as well as all adjacent peasants to their color, if possible.
- Reorganize Peasants - A player can move up to three of their peasants to a different, legal spot.
If a player has a peasant in Heian, they become the Emperor, which allows them to decide the Court action each other player takes during their turn. Players must either take the action dictated or pass. Players can negotiate with the Emperor or discard one Treasure card to take an action of their choice.
Players gain victory points in a variety of ways. They receive four points for each castle they've claimed, one point for each prisoner they control, five points for controlling the Treasure Card "An Heir", and points equal to each of the shortest unbroken chains of peasants between two of their castles. Whenever a player reaches twenty-four points (twenty in a four player game), they immediately win the game and become the Shogun!
Some comments on the game:
1.) Components: Inside the nicely illustrated, sturdy box is a LOT of stuff. When I added in the expansion decks, everything barely fits in - although it does. The heroes, castles, shrines, and peasants, which look like small houses, are all made of durable, chunky plastic. The molds are nice, and the colors are easily distinguished from each other. The cards themselves have some nice thematic artwork on them; and their text corresponds to the action, adding flavor to the duels to keep it from simply being a mathematical affair. The board itself shows a map with a myriad of territories on it, with more nice artwork as well as summaries of gameplay.
2.) Rules: The twenty-six page rulebook is split into three sections - a Quick start section, the rules for the actual board game, and a section that simply goes over the Duel rules. There are several examples and full color illustrations, and I thought the entire thing was rather well laid out. When teaching the game, I find it easiest to simply play a duel with new players first - just so they understand that - then move onto the board game. Duels are very easy, and the game is just a step up above that - easy for teenagers and adults alike.
3.) Duels: Since the duels are an integral part of the game, they better be good; and I'm happy to report that they are quite fun. If a player overextends themselves on an attack, they will have little leeway to defend against an attack; so one must be careful. You can clear three cards each turn, which is a great number, because it's useful; but a player isn't always able to get rid of the cards they want to. The decks seem to be extremely well balanced, although I haven't tried the space and hero decks in the game (it would be too big of a breach of theme for me).
4.) Decks: Speaking of decks, I like how they each have a different feel. My favorite is the Prince, which has weaker attacks yet can discard cards with many attacks to bring down powerful blows. The Samurai is more of a straight-forward character, with powerful attacks and defense. The Ninja forces the enemy to discard cards, and Mikko can pull off some rather neat tricks. Is it necessary to buy the expansion packs? The answer is certainly yes if you want to play three to four players; and even if you wanted to stick with two players, I would still recommend them for a change of pace. But one could certainly enjoy themselves with just the basic game.
5.) Strategy: I enjoy the many options of the game. It's important to do many things to score points, but players only have a few options. One can attempt to control Heian, and indeed it is important, because they can then restrict the other players' options. Breaking the enemy lines is also critical, and with one critical strike you can really cause disruption. Players must balance how they keep their lines of peasants on the board, whether they will destroy or convert enemy peasants, and how much effort they will put into seeking treasure. All of this is on top of the clever combat system; and players must be careful, because a successful attack can leave them rather vulnerable to a worse counter-attack. Many times I've stolen a treasure from my enemy, only to watch in horror as one of my groups of peasants got cut off by a clever attack. In this manner, I think that Shogun is the best of the three games out currently; because attacking each other is critical, yet ties in neatly with the rest of the mechanics. Games tend to be give-and-take affairs, with swings back and forth. There is only one treasure card worth points; and while a player may be lucky enough to find it, other players will constantly be harassing them, attempting to steal from them.
6.) Fun Factor, Time, Players: As I said earlier, I think the game is best with two people and lasts just under an hour, making it a fairly meaty game. But even still, the game is an enjoyable one with dashes of luck (the cards one draw) and a slight feel of a collectible card game combat system. However, I think it's obvious that the decks are extremely well balanced and think that this enhances the enjoyment. Finding a cool monster to attack your opponent with, completing a mission to secure a castle, and attacking a weak point in the enemy lines - all of these bring a high level of satisfaction and fun to the game.
TableStar Games has really done a unique thing here, making their games compatible with one another, yet giving each a distinct, unique feel. While Heroes and Galaxy are lighter romps, Rise of the Shogun is a slightly heavier game, rewarding clever strategy, yet retaining a sense of "fun" in the combat system. It's a nice combination of both "Euro" and American mechanics, and the result is a game that is both pleasant to the eyes and rewarding to the mind. Best of the series and a nice game in its own right - I think HeroCard: Rise of the Shogun will see a good deal of play in my groups.
"Real men play board games"
You can buy this game directly from Funagain games.
BoardGameGeek entry for Herocard: Rise of the Shogun